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Onbashira Matsuri: An Exploration of the Thrilling Ceremony Involving the Transportation of Massive Tree Trunks in the Mountains of Nagano


The Onbashira Matsuri: A Celebration of Ancient Japanese Tradition

If you’ve ever traveled to the mountainous region of Nagano, Japan in the month of April or May, you may have witnessed one of the most thrilling and awe-inspiring festivals in the country. The Onbashira Matsuri, or the festival of the sacred pillars, takes place once every six years and attracts visitors from all over the world to witness the transportation of massive tree trunks along steep mountain roads.

The History and Significance of Onbashira Matsuri

The Onbashira Matsuri has been a part of Japanese tradition for over 1200 years, dating back to the Nara Period (710-794 AD). The festival is based on the belief that the gods of the mountains descend to earth once every seven years, and new shrine buildings must be constructed to renew their divine spirits. Every six years, eight large tree trunks are cut down and transported from the mountains to the Suwa Taisha Shrine, which is located in the city of Suwa. The trunks, which can be up to 20 meters long and weigh several tons, are pulled by teams of men using ropes and drawn by oxen along steep mountain roads. This process, known as the Yamadashi, takes two days to complete and includes several stops along the way for ceremonies and celebrations.

The Thrill of the Yamadashi

The Yamadashi, which translates to “coming down the mountain,” is arguably the most thrilling part of the Onbashira Matsuri. Teams of men, dressed in traditional clothes, pull the massive tree trunks down steep mountain slopes while shouting “Heave ho!” in unison. This portion of the festival can be dangerous, and accidents have been known to occur, making it all the more impressive to witness. Once the tree trunks reach their destination at the Suwa Taisha Shrine, they are set upright and placed into the foundation of the shrine, with a Shinto priest performing a ceremony to bless them. The process of constructing the new shrine takes an additional 16 days and includes several other rituals and ceremonies.

The Onbashira Matsuri Today

While the Onbashira Matsuri has been celebrated for over a millennium, it has evolved over time to incorporate modern elements. Today, the festival attracts millions of visitors from all over the world who come to witness this unique and thrilling tradition. The next Onbashira Matsuri is scheduled for 2022, and preparations are already underway to ensure its success. If you’re planning a trip to Japan in the springtime, consider adding the Onbashira Matsuri to your itinerary. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you won’t want to miss.
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